United States
United States’ Remarkable Journey as a Colonial Empire

American imperialism, as taught in high school textbooks, was a brief period from 1898 to 1945 when the United States acquired overseas territories such as the Philippines and Puerto Rico. This era ended in 1945 when the Philippines gained full independence from Washington. However, the idea that the US was a colonial empire is also controversial, as American citizens did not establish colonies in these territories like British migrants in Virginia or New England.

For those familiar with military conquest in North America during the nineteenth century, it seems odd that many historians agree that the American empire began in 1898. The colonial and imperial status of many polities has been debated, with some claiming Ireland was never a colony of the United Kingdom and others unsure if Siberia was part of a colonial Russian empire.

Despite this, American political history suggests that the United States was a colonial empire throughout most of its history. However, the United States has been a successful colonial power, merging former colonies into the metropole itself. The methods used to acquire these territories were clearly methods of colonial imperialism, and the success of American colonization efforts has hidden the empire in the mists of the past.

A colonial empire is characterized by an asymmetrical relationship between the colony and the metropole, with the metropole being more powerful in terms of military and economic resources. Political entities within the colonies are distinct from the metropole, and these territories are not free to leave the metropole’s control; they are maintained by coercion within a political union.

During the nineteenth century, the US’s frontier territories largely met the requirements after annexation and before being admitted as states. Territorial residents did not have voting representation in Congress or the electoral college, and their legislatures were not constitutional bodies. They were ruled directly from Washington, and political control within the territories was heavily fractured. Indian tribes, white populations, and former Mexican citizens competed for power and territorial control.

These territories were maintained by coercive means, and no areas claimed by the Washington metropole were permitted to leave the Union. The American Civil War made it evident that the metropole was likely to respond to any declaration of independence with military intervention.

All these territories contained populations with a stake in maintaining imperial control, usually the small minority of white Anglo settlers, speculators, and nationalists who promoted more white settlement and a stronger union with the metropole. In conclusion, the period between annexation and statehood fits the description of what we would call imperial rule.

The imperial rule in the United States was largely colonial in nature, as it was the success of colonization efforts that allowed the metropole to consolidate rule in new territories with relative ease. Colorado, for example, was added to the Union in pieces, initially being politically unorganized and controlled by Mexicans, Indian tribes, and white Anglos. It was through the process of colonization by white settlers that Colorado eventually became “suitable” for membership as a state.

The Anglo populations in the metropole unofficially believed the same about former Mexicans, but only after non-Hispanic white migrants overwhelmed former Mexican territories, they were considered viable candidates for national legislature representation. New Mexico’s long wait for statehood stemmed from the fact that the Mexican and Indian population there was “too large.” The process of replacement via migration and colonization was much faster in most areas, as the sheer volume of white settlers moved into places like Iowa, Kansas, and Oregon quickly rendered local tribal populations politically irrelevant.

The myth of “westward expansion” contradicts the reality, as Indians in the conquered territories were considered non-citizens indefinitely and incapable of civilized self-government. Local indigenous populations were not granted the same legal rights as the whites, even with tribes that adopted “white” ways such as agriculture, written language, and constitutional legal structures. Most tribal members were granted citizenship in 1924, and some state governments denied them the vote even then.

The Anglo populations of the American metropole believed that former Mexicans were not considered reasonable candidates for representation in the national legislature until non-Hispanic white migrants overwhelmed the former Mexican territories. New Mexico’s long wait for statehood was due to the “too large” Mexican and Indian population, which took an unusually long time for non-Hispanic whites to obtain a sufficiently large majority in the territory. The American metropole delayed statehood until they were sure that Anglos would dominate the state legislature.

The conquered Mexicans were often promised certain legal rights on paper, but since they were denied control of their own legislations and legal institutions, legal machinations in California and Texas ensured that the former Mexicans did not enjoy these rights. Legal rights were granted to most of the conquered populations eventually, but the process often took decades.

The Russian example follows the same process of colonization, starting with annexation through diplomacy or military conquest. To consolidate this rule, the Russians needed colonists, and the Russian metropole had access to them during the late imperial period, which was a time of massive peasant migration. Although the Russian process bears similarities to the American one, the Russian regime unwisely called itself an empire, making it more easily described as such.

Colonial imperialism has been a topic of debate, with the British and French empires being examples of areas where the process was never entirely successful. The British attempted to colonize Ireland in the old-fashioned way, encouraging Scottish settler colonies in the late seventeenth century. However, these settlers did not overwhelm the local population, leading to the Irish free state’s successful secesion in 1922. French Algeria, intended to be an extension of metropolitan France, faced challenges in establishing political rights and acquiescing to the metropole’s rule. This led to rebellion and secession in 1954. Similar failures were experienced by the metropoles in Kenya, Rhodesia, West Africa, India, and Indochina.

In contrast, the American colonies were reduced to minorities lacking a distinct political identity, with the only vestiges found in the system of Indian reservations. These colonies are no longer considered colonies, and it becomes easier to dismiss them as “what empire?” The failures of colonialism and imperialism in these regions have left a lasting impact on the history of colonial empires.

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